At the recent Temple Grandin and Friends benefit for Autism Works Now, former American Idol contestant James Durbin lent his time and considerable music talent to the proceedings. Backstage, he spoke with ABILITY’s Stan Hoskins about finding his way into the music business, after being diagnosed with two challenging conditions at a young age. Stan
Hoskins: Can you talk about what obstacles you faced in becoming an artist?
James Durbin: In 1999, when I was 10, I was diagnosed with Asperger’s and Tourette’s syndrome. A year earlier, my dad passed away from an overdose, so it was an emotional and stressful time. When I’m stressed, my tics and behavior—my syndromes, as I call them—act up. It was really difficult for my mom and my two older sisters. I had been getting teased and bullied. So finding out that there was a name for what I had was both good and bad. I got diagnosed at Stanford University’s children’s hospital by a neurologist named Ching Wang. “Thanks, Dr. Wang!” I’m still finding new ways to get around autism and Tourette’s, and just when I think I’ve grown out of one of them, or it’s gone away, something happens, and I’m like (snaps his fingers), Nope, there it is again, sneakin’ up on me!
Hoskins: What made you get involved with this benefit for Autism Works Now?
Durbin: It’s to help people with autism get jobs, which is an ongoing problem. It was a problem for me growing up. That’s probably why I picked music, so I could work for myself. Now I make the rules. If I have any sort of legacy, it’s that American Idol gave me a platform, not only for myself, but so that kids with autism or Tourette’s could say, “Hey, that guy’s just like me… Everything’s gonna’ be okay.” Today, I’m married and have two kids. I’m physically able to work, even though I have some limitations, but I get the job done.
Hoskins: Let’s talk about American Idol. I imagine that you were constantly feeling stressed during the show. How did you cope with the pressure?
Durbin: It was really high stress. Now I’m a much more comfortable speaker than I was when I was on the show. I said things that maybe I shouldn’t have said then, but I had never done any interviews before Idol. I got to one of the rounds, and I was having a real struggle with producer Jimmy Iovine. I wanted to sing “Heavy Metal” by Sammy Hagar, and he was like (in a New Jersey accent), “No, you’re gonna sound like a Sammy Hagar wannabe, and be out of this competition tomorrow…” I said, “Jimmy, I disagree with you. If I’m gonna go out of this competition, I’m gonna go out the captain of my ship.” That’s where I came up with the whole “Give Metal a Chance” thing. I started a revolt, and Scottie (McCreery) and Casey (Abrams), who had let Jimmie change their songs, went back and recorded the songs they really wanted to do.
That same week, I got a call from the Make-A-Wish Foundation that a little boy named Cole Kwapich, who has Tourette’s and Asperger’s like me, and who’d had a double kidney transplant, wanted to meet me. I think he was seven or eight at the time. Suddenly, what I was doing on the show wasn’t about me any more. It wasn’t about Jimmy, or the competition… It was about what I’m doing for people, how I’m a voice for the voiceless, for people who are too afraid to speak up, or who can’t maintain eye contact. A lot of the fans I meet, who are on the spectrum, have a hard time looking me in the eye. I sit with them and I’m like, “It’s okay. It takes time and practice. We have a developmental disorder. But you have to focus on making today better. It’s for you and for your growth as a human. Don’t worry about tomorrow, next week, or how you’re gonna be in a year. Focus on right now. Slow things down. Live your life to the fullest today, because you don’t know if tomorrow will ever come. We’re focused on going so fast: How fast can we get information? How fast can we drive? How fast can we answer the phone, answer a message? I was having breakfast with my wife the other day on our seventh anniversary—Autism Works Now
Durbin: Thank you. We were sitting next to this couple, and the mom was on her phone, the Dad was on his phone, and the kid was on their phone, and I turned to my wife and said, “Honey, I’m not on my phone that much.”
Hoskins: It’s tough these days because you can use your phone to do virtually anything.
Hoskins: I was looking at a Facebook post of a full-page, Radio Shack ad from 1990; it had all these different things on it. These days the typical phone can do everything on that page.
Durbin: Play music, tell you what time it is, tell you the date, record, “write” a note on a notepad hands free.
Hoskins: Now that you’ve been in the music industry awhile, are you able to surround yourself with people who keep you grounded?
Durbin: Not at all! (laughs). If I’m starting to get uppity, I’ll call my attorney, and she’ll yell at me, which humbles me. The music industry—any industry, for that matter— is not a good place to be if you’re on the spectrum and don’t like stress. As I’ve found out, it’s all stress. It’s hardly any music. That’s the love-hate relationship I have with the industry. But I think that what we’re doin’ here, and what Dr. Temple Grandin’s doing is phenomenal. If we don’t use our voices for speaking out and speaking up, then what are we doing? My wife and I have a baby girl, and she’s amazing, absolutely beautiful. She’s starting to talk, and the other day she woke my wife up and said, “Yo, Mama!” (laughter) We need to make this world as good as we can for the next generation. It seems like for a lot of people, it’s about power and destruction… But this event is about promoting happiness. Just because you’re disabled, just because you have a disorder, just because you’re labeled different or slower, doesn’t prohibit you from living your dreams. I’m constantly dreaming, and I know so many people who are constantly dreaming. There’s no reason why it can’t happen, to go from being a smalltown singer, to being on American Idol. It happened for Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood, Chris Daughtry and Adam Lambert. The Rolling Stones just sold out the Fonda Theater. It’s on the news. Will I get there? Who knows? I don’t care. This is my path. This is my life. You play the cards you’re dealt. The best players can win with any cards.
Hoskins: Where do you see yourself in five years?
Durbin: I don’t. (laughs) I wonder what I’m doing tomorrow. My wife was asking me that, and I’d like to have bought a house and be paying a mortgage. Our son will be 11, and our daughter will be five and a half. I’ll be 31, and my wife 40. I just want to be happy. I want to be playing music. I want to be able to go to all of my local stops in Santa Cruz, and see all my friends with disabilities living and working and thriving.